Miracle Legion

••• Daniel Paul Schreber's 100 Years of Solitude

Sass is arguing against the dominant psychiatric model of schizophrenia, as exemplifying "poor reality-testing" and a lack of analytic skills due to reversion to a "primitive" or childlike state of mental development. Instead, he claims it's a way of seeing that spreads tentativeness both toward the delusional and the real, both treated with a certain detachment and irony. If so, Schreber's qualifications are important, as are the "feminine adornments" that Schreber uses as an aid to perceiving his transformation. Indeed, throughout his description of his transfiguration, Schreber never claims that he sprouted breasts or lost his penis—such miracles are limited to his internal organs—only that concentrated attention "gives the impression" of such changes.

Indeed, Sass sees the schizophrenic experience, in its detachment and "cerebral, hyper-reflexive awareness," as markedly similar to Wittgenstein's description of the "philosophical disease" of solipsism—the belief that "I alone exist, the world is my projection." Such a state is attained through inaction and concentrated perception—life becomes a "seeing-as" exercise.

Intended as a "phenomenological investigation," Sass's book doesn't venture very far in assigning causes or suggesting treatment. But as an attempt to form an empathetic understanding of the schizophrenic worldview—and an examination of important rhetorical structures in the Memoirs—it's a notable addition to the overstuffed shelves of Schreberology.

The Last Laugh

Schreber himself is, by necessity, a keen student of rhetoric, being assailed by voices with their own peculiar language games. God Himself speaks "the so-called 'basic language,' a somewhat antiquated but nevertheless powerful German, characterized particularly by a wealth of euphemisms (for instance, reward in the reverse sense for punishment, poison for food, juice for venom, unholy for holy, etc. . . . God . . . was addressed as 'Your Majesty's obedient servant.')" Other souls torment him with "a terrible, monotonous repetition of ever recurring phrases (learnt by rote)." He is teased, given ridiculous orders, and made to guess the missing words in unfinished sentences—the language of madness is maddening.

Yet if language was his prison for many years, it eventually showed him the way out, at least for a time. He learned to distract himself from the voices by reading, playing the piano, or mentally reciting poems he'd memorized. The quality was unimportant, "even obscene verses are worth their weight in gold as mental nourishment compared with the terrible nonsense my nerves are otherwise forced to listen to." And he devoted himself to his Memoirs, thinking, as his belief in an external world returned, that perhaps the record of his experiences justified them, that these truths had been given him to communicate. The tone of the book—that of an intelligent, careful man trying to clearly describe incidents which beggar language and belief—is evidence of the painstaking deliberation with which he wrote it.

The manuscript was part of the evidence Schreber presented in court in his appeal for release. The release was granted in 1902, though the court noted it was "in no doubt that the appellant is insane." He returned to his family and enjoyed five years of quiet before suffering another breakdown. He died an inmate in 1911, his communications in the interval being limited to undecipherable scribblings and a frequent, tormented "Ha—Ha!"

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